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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Everything in Its Place

Класть/положить: to put, place, lay, apply

Ever noticed that native speakers and non-native speakers have entirely different problems with certain words? Take the verb pair класть / положить (to put, place, lay). It’s one of a few verb pairs with unrelated roots (like говорить / сказать — to speak, say), so memorizing it was tough.

Some Russians also have a hard time with this verb pair. They would like to make it into two verb pairs — класть / покласть (or накласть) and ложить / положить — and they write dozens of letters to asking for usage guidance. The responding experts reply emphatically and with varying degrees of exasperation. Q: Какова разница в использовании слов класть и ложить? (What’s the difference in usage between the words класть and ложить?) A: Разница в том, что класть — правильно, а ложить — ошибка. (The difference is that класть is correct, and ложить is a mistake.) And they remind Russian speakers that the word ложить does not exist in contemporary literary Russian, no matter how many times Mikhail Gorbachev says “ложьте.”

But foreigners — at least this foreigner — wouldn’t generate new verb pairs. For me, the problem with класть / положить lies elsewhere: in the concept of lying. You use this verb pair when you are putting something down “in a lying position.” Since in English we generally just “put” something somewhere, I sometimes pause with an object in my hand, imagining its post-put position before spitting out a verb.

It’s easy when whatever you are putting down can’t stand upright. Положи деньги на стол (Put the money on the table). Клади платок в карман (Tuck your handkerchief in your pocket). Куда ты положил почту? (Where did you put the mail?) You also use this verb pair with telephones, even though now they may stand up in their bases rather than lie on them. Не кладите трубку! (Don’t hang up the phone!)

Speaking of phones, this is the verb pair you use to describe putting money into a bank or account. Я положил 1,000 рублей на счёт твоего мобильника (I put 1,000 rubles on your cell phone).

But contrary to the lying-flat dictum, it’s also the verb pair to use when mixing something into something else in the kitchen or at the table. Сколько ложек сахара вы кладёте в чай? (How many spoonfuls of sugar do you take in your tea?) Яйца с сахаром кладут в кастрюлю, взбивают венчиком, нагревают на водяной бане (You put the eggs and sugar in a double boiler and whisk as you heat them).

You can also find this verb pair in several vivid expressions. Как Бог на душу положит means “as you wish” or “however you want” (literally, “as God will put it on your soul.”) Sometimes this is positive: Живите, как Бог на душу положит, слушайтесь только себя, любите кого хотите (Live however you wish, listen only to yourself, love whomever you want). But often it’s negative: Они переводили с греческого, но и его толком не знали. Переводили как Бог на душу положит. (They translated from the Greek, but they really didn’t know the language. They translated whatever came into their heads.)

Положить зубы на полку (literally, “to put your teeth on the shelf”) is what you do when you’re short of money and have to forego food. We use the same basic image in English. Муж потерял работу, так что придётся положить зубы на полку (My husband lost his job so we’ll have to tighten our belts).

See? Same concept, different body parts.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.